Tom Cruise and The Dying Nature of Movie Stars

Tom Cruise in Edge of Tomorrow

No other actor was a bigger superstar throughout the mid-80s and into the 2000s than Tom Cruise. From 1986 to 2008, 14 of the 23 films that Cruise headlined both grossed over $100 million dollars at the domestic box office and at least $200 million worldwide. Cruise filled his filmography with a variety of dramas, comedies and action films, which resulted in a stardom that was equal to a supernova. All it took for ticket receipts to already be printed was for a film to paste his name across the marketing campaign. He sustained a blockbuster franchise in Mission: Impossible, while also having the flexibility to do any project he wanted, and the likelihood of success remained incredibly high. However, Cruise’s good fortune has somewhat slowed in the last four years. Since 2010, he has starred in six films, with only one (Mission: Impossible- Ghost Protocol) crossing the $100 million mark in the United States. Cruise’s shrinking numbers are indicative of a growing trend throughout Hollywood.

A poster for Edge of Tomorrow, released shortly after the film's debut
A poster for Edge of Tomorrow (2014), released shortly after the film’s debut

The era in which actors like Tom Cruise can single-handedly guarantee a blockbuster’s success is essentially over. At the time of this writing, Cruise’s most recent film, Edge of Tomorrow, is closing in on $300 million worldwide on a budget of $178 million (not counting marketing costs and any other expenses). While this film cannot be considered a total failure, it’s definitely not what Warner Bros. was hoping it would accomplish when they signed off on production. Subsequently, the relative failure of this film, along with other similar missteps, has proven that studios can no longer cast a big-name actor to a film and expect their name to propel it to huge box office profitability. Currently, the over-saturation of the market by comic book films, remakes of older properties, and other franchises has relegated actors as a complement in a movie rather than its star. Ultimately, the nature of franchises in Hollywood has diminished the idea of selling a film on a just an actor’s name and instead made it more of a focus on the type of property being sold.

Edge of Tomorrow, despite it being a genuinely refreshing, funny and exciting film, is a significant underachievement because audiences did not see it as having anything significant to sell to them besides the performances of Tom Cruise and a sidekick in Emily Blunt. It tried to appeal with its fascinating premise of reliving the same day over and over, yet all audiences gauged from the marketing leading up to its release was a standard action movie set in a typical future setting. As a result, Edge of Tomorrow faltered in its opening weekend and all the ads since its premiere have tried to tout the wave of positive reviews that were given in response to it, with the hope that it would be enough to draw reluctant audiences in. Unfortunately, people did not see anything special about the film and instead decided to retreat to the traditional fare of standard properties, such as popular superheroes or famous monsters.

Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt in a scene from Edge of Tomorrow
Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt in a scene from Edge of Tomorrow (2014)

Audiences have proven that they enjoy, and ultimately prefer, familiarity when heading to the theater. Despite terrific reviews and very strong word-of-mouth, Edge of Tomorrow’s box office performance highlights the most bitter irony in Hollywood today: that audiences complain so much about too many franchises in the market and not enough smart options, yet not going to see a truly terrific and different film when that choice is present. Therefore, for most big-name actors, the best chance at huge box office success in today’s Hollywood landscape is for them to join an established property or continue milking profit from an older series. This is why movies like the Mission: Impossible series, the Men in Black franchise, and the Pirates of the Caribbean films (among others as well) continue being made. Not only do they carry the nostalgia from audience members who have seen the oldest entries, but they allow for that same audience to transition in a younger and newer demographic through kids or younger siblings. They also give audiences exactly the type of experience they know they are going to receive. While at first it may have been that actors were the most important factor, the continuations of these types of films show that an actor’s name no longer makes the franchise; instead, the franchise makes the actor.

Film series give actors the chance to promote themselves more so than they can in anything else, and it gives them the ability to stay sustainable for longer portions of their careers. Chris Pratt, for example, is someone who is a fan favorite on the NBC comedy Parks and Recreation and as a result, is now the lead in both the upcoming Marvel film Guardians of the Galaxy and next year’s Jurassic World. The opportunity that he receives by being a part of those films is more significant than one of those films managing to cast him. They could have easily signed another person to those same roles. Back in the day, studios were clamoring to get men like Tom Cruise and Will Smith to headline their projects. Now, actors such as those hold out to receive a phone call asking them to headline the next big franchise.

Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark in Iron Man (2008)
Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark in Iron Man (2008)

Combining a high-concept film with a quality actor is what makes big names stay relevant. Ultimately, the character that they are playing creates a popularity for the actor more so than the other way around. Robert Downey Jr., for example, has shown over the years that he is a fantastic actor, yet his current mainstream success is due to the Iron Man franchise and the exposure that the character now has around the globe. The thought of an actor like him playing an arrogant billionaire who becomes a superhero is what entices people to buy tickets. Another example of a high-concept film merging with a high quality actor is Angelina Jolie and Maleficent. Disney sold the film on the idea of having it be the untold story of the classic animated villain and that villain being played by Jolie. The film, as a result, is well on its way to surpass $500 million worldwide. The norm now is that no actor is above the property they are representing; they are merely another ingredient that contributes to the overall success.

Along with Tom Cruise, other actors face these similar issues as well. For example, Will Smith has seen his stardom shrink by a large margin since the mid-to-late 2000s. Smith is known for propelling a drama in The Pursuit of Happyness, a romantic comedy in Hitch and an action flick in I, Robot each to over $300 million in worldwide ticket sales. He even sold audiences on an alcoholic and run-down superhero with Hancock to the tune of $624 million worldwide. His most recent film, though, After Earth, was a significant box office failure. Furthermore, with the failures of Transcendence, The Lone Ranger, Dark Shadows and The Rum Diary, Johnny Depp is another example of a fading star. This is not to say that these men are in danger of completely disappearing, but rather, that to generate success and remain in the public eye, they now need franchises and/or well-known properties to shoot them back up because of the shift from the previous Hollywood star system to its current one.

Tom Cruise and Will Smith in 2007
Tom Cruise and Will Smith at Hollywood ceremony in 2007

The way the Hollywood star system previously worked was that an actor would headline a project and then, as a sign of good faith by the studio, be granted the funding and time necessary to do a smaller, more meaningful project; this was otherwise known as a “one for them” and “one for me” approach. This gave an actor the ability to develop an image as both a box office champion and a dramatic thespian. Tom Cruise and Will Smith, for example, managed to achieve this balance as evidenced by Cruise’s three Academy Award nominations and Smith’s two Academy Award nominations among their bounty of box office successes. Studios were more than willing to give them the occasional time off to do a smaller project as long as they would return to headline their next big money maker. However, while the “one for them” and “one for me” approach still exists, the current Hollywood system does not allow for the same type of balance.

The continued emphasis studios place on preexisting properties makes sure that actors are no longer a premium. Franchise films go into pre-production and get scheduled for release long before they can even figure out a damn title for the movie. Summer dates on the calendar are filled years in advance, with a comic book property in one spot, a reboot of a 30-year-old franchise two weeks later and another film in a long-running series the week after that. It essentially amounts to a competition of egos between studios as to who can plant their flag first. In consequence, actors are forced to acquiesce to these demands because they are playing by the studio’s rules, not the other way around. Actors play the same character for many consecutive years, with minimal (if any) time to do any other project . They sign multi-year contracts, despite the fact that the term “multi-year” can be an ironic phrase on its own. The moment a studio blockbuster fails, an actor’s chance at box office stardom is done and the company then tries to figure out how to reboot the franchise as soon as possible (*cough, Green Lantern, *cough).

However, this is not to say that there are no longer any actors who can single-handedly power a film to success. Leonardo DiCaprio has proven repeatedly that he draws in audiences. While his grosses have never matched the heights of men like Tom Cruise and Will Smith, most of his films have been very profitable. DiCaprio has continuously challenged himself with each new role and generated a fair amount of revenue for each of his films, while also cultivating a successful niche among audiences that prefer more dramatic fare. He’s become an exception to the dying trend of big-name Hollywood actors that are able to promote immediate interest and success for any film that they do, no matter the subject. This brings the up the question of whether or not it is it better for actors to aim for critical acclaim and success within that niche rather than trying to become a massive box office star that appeals to everyone. It may help if actors become more selective with their roles and stop trying to achieve the universal success that stars of previous generations achieved.

Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort in a scene from The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort in a scene from The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

By choosing to do smaller films, actors can still use their image as an advantage. Leonardo DiCaprio understands that his name can sell tickets. Unlike the previous examples of Robert Downey Jr. and Angelina Jolie, DiCaprio is not a complement to a franchise or other big Hollywood entity. His films are sold on the idea of a well-known actor like him playing a particular character, as opposed to the Hollywood franchise standard of a well-known character being played by a particular actor. This set-up gives DiCaprio the upper hand in projects because he then becomes imperative to their success. It may not be at the same scale of what Tom Cruise and Will Smith experienced many years ago, but it is the closest thing there is in the film industry today.

Another actor who is similar to Leonardo DiCaprio in how he handles the current Hollywood system is Daniel Day-Lewis. The anticipation of waiting for Daniel Day Lewis’ next piece of work is almost as exciting as the actual performance itself. In his last eight films, he has received four Academy Award nominations, with two wins, which speaks to the quality of acting that Day-Lewis brings forth with each performance, along with the importance he places on picking the right projects. Actors such as Lewis and DiCaprio choose more dramatic options not just because they retain significantly more influence than they would compared to a major Hollywood production, but because they also have the ability to hone their craft without the fear of studio pressure. They don’t have to sign multi-year contracts because once a project is done, they simply move on to the next one whenever they are ready. There is no need for them to appeal to as wide an audience as possible, because they already possess a very loyal and rewarding fan base. Ultimately, actors must make a choice as to whether they prefer being the face of smaller, more artistic projects, or having the ability to sell more tickets by being a part of a major Hollywood franchise.

Mark Wahlberg headlining this poster for Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014)
Mark Wahlberg headlining this poster for Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014)

Actors, for the most part, understand that the days in which big names such as Tom Cruise and Will Smith could carry a film to massive box office success are over. Significant financial achievement, however, can still be accomplished; although, it is up to an individual to decide if they want to follow the path of someone like Robert Downey Jr. and sign up for major Hollywood properties, or instead have artistic freedom and more control in a smaller, more dramatic niche such as Leonardo DiCaprio or Daniel Day-Lewis. Mark Wahlberg, for example, is a very popular actor who has never reached box office stardom on his own. However, Wahlberg’s achievement with Ted and impending success with Transformers: Age of Extinction proves that he understands how the current Hollywood system works for massive success, and he has chosen to go down the route of being a complement to a major franchise . He will definitely be a factor in convincing audiences to head out to the newest Transformers film, but the greatest selling point of robots destroying robots remains at the forefront. Therefore, the tagline of Wahlberg’s Transformers poster truly takes on a different meaning. Box office superstars are diminishing in front of our very eyes. There may never again be an actor who can match the incredibly lengthy and varied success of Tom Cruise, because ultimately, the rules of Hollywood have changed.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Journalism student at the University of Maryland (2016). Pop culture enthusiast. T.V. shows, movies and sports are a lifelong love. Follow me on twitter @Gio_Insignares

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  1. Tom Cruise is a strange man, but he makes some pretty decent movies

  2. I think this is a perfect movie for everyone.

    If you’re a fan of Tom Cruise, then hey…here’s a new Tom Cruise movie for you!

    On the other hand, if you hate Tom Cruise, then here’s a movie where you can watch him die over and over and over!

    We all win!

    • I never understood what the hate for Tom Cruise is about. Perhaps he is always too happy? Or is it his religion? As if other religions arent just as rediculous.

      Either way, I enjoy his movies. Jack Reacher wasnt that great for me, but he is the man in Mission Impossible.

    • Jason Thompson

      I don’t understand people’s hate of Tom Cruise – I personally could care less what he does in his personal life, all I know is that his movies are incredibly entertaining.

  3. I think Tom Cruise and sci-fi go together perfectly. I was one of the few that actually really liked Oblivion.

  4. Jemarc Axinto

    Love your points in your article. What are your thoughts on an actor’s name having the opposite effect? For example, people roll their eyes when they hear Nicholas Cage will be in a new film, or even Shia Lebeouf?

    • Giovanni Insignares

      I would say that a big factor for actors such as those is their off-screen presence and poor film choices. LaBeouf doesn’t have the greatest off-screen presence with people. There were recent examples like the whole plagiarism scandal and his brown bag incident in Berlin where he put a paper bag over his head that said “I am not famous anymore.” It just alienates people from going to see his movies. Nicholas Cage, on the other hand, I think has hurt himself with his film choices. They don’t just look unappealing, they look terrible. Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Season of the Witch, Drive Angry, and a Ghost Rider sequel are just a few examples. Also affecting his persona among fans is the fact that Cage looks like he’s taking the roles so seriously, despite the fact that the movies look terrible.

      • Helen Parshall

        Just an odd anecdote, but I know a person that met him once and he is entirely the same kind of over-the-top serious that I think has given him such a stigma with his movies. Couldn’t resist sharing haha. Wonderful article!

  5. Edge was an exhilarating experience from beginning to end. It almost felt like I was watching a reality based Super Time Force. I thought the script, writing, dialogue, and character development were great. There were great action scenes and the comedic value was just enough to make the entire experience just great fun. I really empathized for Cruise’s and Blunt’s characters. I wanted humanity to win even after dozens upon dozens of times of failing. Cruise and Blunt finally got it right.

  6. Tom Cruise is really reinventing himself.

    • Kevin Kryah

      Edge of Tomorrow is just like a movie he would’ve been in 15-20 years ago. He’s not reinventing himself, he’s just trying to stage a comeback by doing the same running-and-yelling-thing that he’s always done.

  7. Greatly put, I enjoyed reading this despite its length.

  8. Amanda Dominguez-Chio

    I really enjoyed reading and learning about the Hollywood star system. It did not occur to me that both Will Smith and Tom Cruise have garnered Academy Award nominations, yet they also acted in memorable franchises.It amazes me how much franchises have impacted the movie business: every year there’s an upcoming and highly anticipated film that highly depends on profit, making a demand.

  9. jose tery

    Edge of Tomorrow is basically the best video game movie ever made.

    Seriously. The movie relies heavily on dying, respawning, and going back in with what you learned last time. It doesn’t get much more gamey than that!

  10. Antony Keeney

    Just like any other actor out there, I don’t personally know the guy, but I very much enjoy Tom Cruise movies. Btw, Collateral is his best and most underrated film. Go watch it.

  11. Im not a big Tom Cruise fan and personally find some of his most recent stuff and his acting pretty average in last sci-fi film oblivion wasn’t the greatest for my liking and one of the reasons nearly didnt go to watch this film

    Went in his latest movie and really enjoyed it, might go as far to say its the best film i watched this year. Maybe because of mech suits and video game feel to the movie.

    Even thou it went off the idea of films like ground hog day and source code, the idea of the film still felt like something new which was refreshing, Deff recommend watching this film

  12. Forget Tom Cruise! Sean Bean would have been perfect for Edge of Tomorrow lol

  13. I think that this generation has a voracious appetite for rapidly attaining newer and newer material. We can probably thank the internet for that. This has led to people simply becoming less patient and always in search of something new. In the world of film stars, I agree that, even though many people will go see any movie their favorite star is in, this trend is decreasing, and a star’s 15 minutes of fame is suddenly becoming their 5 minutes of fame. People at large just don’t seem to have the patience or the taste to appreciate the deeper levels of entertainment films provide, and the levels of complexities an established actor can provide to them. Moviegoers seem to be enabling the studios to produce more commercially acceptable materials. You’re right; its not the name of the star that most affects the audience now, but instead the name of the franchise. Great article. Thanks.

  14. S.A. Takacs

    Interesting analysis of Hollywood! Good article.

  15. I thought it was tons better than i was expecting. The trailer, to me seemed straightforward and “oh, so its Goundhog Day but in a war setting until he does it right” but i was wrong. Its much more.

  16. Haven’t seen too many bad Tom Cruise films. Can’t say I am a fan of his, but his movies are generally good. I liked Jack Reacher and even thought Vanilla Sky was decent.

  17. I agree with you in the sense that even a great actor cannot save a bad film (Dicaprio’s’s performance as Gatsby sure could not salvage that one) but the actor is still indispensable to a good film. It goes without saying that A Few Good Men, MInority Report, Rain Man, and Jerry Maguire would not have been the same without Cruise. I wouldn’t say the “dying” nature of movie stars, but the “diminishing” nature of movie stars.

  18. Amena Banu

    Interesting theory; interesting read.

  19. Jordan David

    Interesting indeed. Although I do agree that star power is much less a contributor to box office success than it once was, I do not like to say “never.”

  20. I agree with your theory because it does reveal a truth about the Hollywood system. I agree that the Hollywood system is different in the way actors are associated with a project. It is true that Tom Cruise is not bringing in the huge box office numbers like he used to because people decide to go see a movie depending on its concept instead of the actor attached to the project. More actors today are trying to join big franchises in order to make money and make a name for themselves. For example, Michael Fassbender has created a name for himself by joining movies he knew were going to be successful. He was a part of “X-men First Class” and “X-Men Days of Future Past”, which makes him a rising star in Hollywood. Even though he may becoming popular in Hollywood, he joins movies that he knows are going to be successful, like the X-men franchise. The star power system is fading in Hollywood and more actors are depending more on the franchise they join instead of their name alone.

  21. The concept of reliving the same day over and over is an interesting concept,but one that has been done before in the film “Groundhog Day”. While that may be an older film, One of the films in the harry potter series touched upon reliving the same moment over again in the climax of the films.

  22. Maybe we’re not in love with who Tom Cruise is anymore…and don’t care to watch him no matter how good the script, director or producer.

  23. charles

    tom cruise works long and hard and creates jobs for many people.

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